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Jewish stories at country houses

Written by
Abigail GreenProfessor of Modern European History, University of Oxford
Garden with river in foreground and house in background in winter, Mottisfont, Hampshire
The garden, river and house in winter at Mottisfont, Hampshire | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Being Jewish meant different things at different times. Taken together, the Jewish stories in country houses we care for speak to the integration of many Jews into nineteenth and twentieth-century British society, and some of the obstacles they encountered.

New arrivals

Jews were expelled from England in 1290. When they returned under Oliver Cromwell, they settled in urban areas. Some eighteenth-century Jews made enough money to buy, develop and build grand country houses as part of their pathway to social acceptance.

This phenomenon became more pronounced during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: a period of social and economic change that saw the rise of great Jewish financial dynasties like the Goldsmids, the Rothschilds and the Samuels.

Town lives, country lives

Most Jewish country houses were in the South East of England and were therefore within easy reach of the City of London and its financial markets. Like the Rothschilds, many families had international family and business connections. This shaped the cosmopolitan taste in collecting, design and architecture, which is reflected in houses like Waddesdon Manor, a neo-French château.

Country houses were also seen as sites of ‘Englishness’ which would allow Jewish families to more easily assimilate into British society and culture. Jewish country house owners hunted, gardened, collected art and entertained lavishly. They supported local schools and charities, just as they tended to support traditional objects of Jewish charity, like the poor Jewish immigrants of London’s East End.

The Parterre Garden at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, with flowerbeds and the chateau-style house in the background
The Parterre Garden at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Barriers to integration

The wealthy and city-based Jews found it hard to integrate into the world of the English gentry. Before 1858, only those who'd converted to Christianity, such as the future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli of Hughenden Manor, could enter politics – and even then they still faced discrimination. Rather than face social exclusion, members of the Rothschild family built houses (including Waddesdon) in the Vale of Aylesbury where they could establish their own hunt.

Jewish politics

Political antisemitism, the pogroms in Russia, the mass immigration of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews to Britain, and Hitler’s rise to power all touched the lives of Jewish country house owners. The Rothschilds and other wealthy Jewish families were a particular focus for antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews, money and power, which were widespread.

Many tried to help persecuted foreign Jews. Ludwig Messels of Nymans, who married into Christian society, was active in the Anglo-Jewish Association during the 1880s. Before the Second World War, the Bearsteds of Upton House and the Rothschilds helped arrange the Kindertransport (the transport of Jewish children from Nazi Germany to Britain) and gave a free loan of £60,000 to help German Jewish refugees.

Before Hitler, Zionism (the establishment and development of the Jewish state of Israel) was very controversial in these circles, attracting opposition from Lord Bearsted but greater support from some Rothschilds. This changed with the terrible plight of European Jews in the 1930s and the Holocaust.

Assimilation and Jewishness

Jews like Leonard Woolf of Monk’s House who married non-Jews and led socially integrated lives could still encounter antisemitic attitudes among friends and family. Even country house owners whose parents had converted were touched by the tragedy of Jewish existence in interwar Europe. Both Leonard Messel of Nymans and Maud Russell of Mottisfont Abbey had German relatives who fled the Nazis, with their help, and some who perished in the Holocaust.

The Gothic ruins at Nymans, West Sussex
The Gothic ruins at Nymans, West Sussex | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Places with Jewish stories

Hughenden Manor
Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire was the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. He was born into an established Sephardi (Jews who formerly lived in Spain and Portugal) family but was baptised as a child. His novels return repeatedly to the glories of the Jewish past, and he was accused of pursuing a ‘Jewish’ foreign policy because of his support for the Ottoman Empire at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.
Waddesdon Manor
Waddesdon Manor was built in 1874 by Ferdinand de Rothschild, a Liberal MP. Born in Frankfurt and raised in Austria, Ferdinand belonged to a famous Jewish banking dynasty. He commissioned this French-style chateau in the Vale of Aylesbury to showcase his great collection of art and antiquities, and to be a venue for entertaining grand friends like Edward Prince of Wales.
Nymans was home to Ludwig Messel, his son Leonard and their families. Ludwig came from a German family of Jewish bankers that handled the finances of royalty and nobility. He got married in a church when he arrived in England. The famous garden that was his passion provided a way for him to integrate socially and culturally into Sussex rural life.
Monk's House
This seventeenth-century cottage was the country retreat of the writer Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, an innovative colonial administrator in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), leading publisher, and influential political writer and theorist. Virginia shared the conventional antisemitic prejudices of the English upper class, but Leonard maintained close ties with his large Jewish family, who were by then very well established in Britain. He himself was a confirmed atheist, who in later life supported the newly established State of Israel.
Maud Russell of Mottisfont was born Maud Nelke, the daughter of a very wealthy Berlin Jewish stockbroker. Her avant-garde European taste and connections have shaped the house and its (now dispersed) collection. She left for Germany after Kristallnacht to see what she could do for her relatives and managed to bring seven back to England before war broke out.
Upton House and Gardens
Lord and Lady Bearsted of Upton House were pillars of the Anglo-Jewish community during the mid-twentieth century. Their Jewish commitments are less obviously apparent in this relatively unassuming ‘hunting box’, which houses the Shell oil magnate’s extraordinary great master collection, but they administered extensive Jewish philanthropy from the house and kept a holiday cottage on the estate for the family rabbi.

Trusted source

This article contains contributions from Abigail Green, Professor of Modern European History at the University of Oxford. She has written widely on modern German history, international Jewish history and is now working on liberal political culture. Abigail is a contributor to the Trusted Source project.

Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA (London 1876 ¿ Middleton in Teesdale 1941)

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